The Heartily Enjoyable Train Wreck of X-Men: Apocalypse

apocalypse

Jay here!

Reviewing media here always feels like straddling a fence. On one hand, I’m a professional critic, and that’s a lens that never really goes away. On the other hand, when I’m writing or talking at xplainthexmen.com, I’m largely speaking as a fan, to other fans; and my considerations change accordingly. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, those perspectives line up, and everything is smooth sailing.

Other times, it’s X-Men: Apocalypse.

Look: Miles and I both enjoyed the hell out of this movie. I’m definitely going to see it again, probably more than once. When I put on my fan goggles, it’s awesome, delightful, rewarding. We spent a lot of the movie elbowing each other in the ribs and grinning; and then being really glad that the critic we happened to be sitting next to was our former producer Bobby, who has no illusions of our professionalism for us to shatter.

It's a metaphor that is also a movie poster!

It’s a metaphor that is also a movie poster!

At the same time, there is no real question that X-Men: Apocalypse fails as a cohesive whole. In general, it plays less like the conclusion of a trilogy than like the final stage of a very large and unwieldy truck navigating a very narrow hairpin turn in hopes of finding clear highways ahead: an impressive feat, but not particularly epic unless you’re the guy at the wheel.

Many of Apocalypse‘s problems are structural. It’s essentially an uneven and poorly-paced mash-up of two movies: one, a decidedly lackluster story about Xavier and Magneto continuing to rehash the same feelings we’ve been watching them slog through for two preceding movies; and the other, a pretty solid coming-of-age flick about the next generation of X-kids. This might account for the tonal dissonance that dogs many of the most cinematically spectacular sequences–most notably, a reprise of the slow-time Quicksilver scene from Days of Future Past, which is so caught up in its own self-satisfied novelty that it completely bypasses what should and easily could be devastating emotional resonance.

The official character gifs, on the other hand, are an unmitigated delight, which is why I will be using them to illustrate the rest of this review.

The official character emoji, on the other hand, are an unmitigated delight, which is why I will be using them to illustrate the rest of this review.

There’s also the problem of Apocalypse himself, who, in the tradition of the comics, is a compelling figure but a really dull antagonist. Oscar Isaac’s understated performance holds up well–there’s something incredibly unsettling about near-omnipotence wielded that casually–while quietly establishing Apocalypse himself as a subtle but effective mirror for Charles Xavier. But Apocalypse never quite stops feeling contrived, and the nods to his traditional comics portrayal are shoehorned in with very little narrative justification. Aside from Magneto, the horsemen mostly stand around looking bored while their boss pontificates. And while there’s destruction aplenty, it tends toward the Zack Snyder school of depersonalized violence, where cities fall with no real glimpse or even acknowledgment of the human fallout.

(It’s probably also worth noting that the decision to schedule the press and preview screenings for a Monday when a good deal of the audience would be going in with Civil War or Deadpool–both vastly superior films–fresh in their minds is probably not doing the movie any favors in reviews.)

Does this sound dire? It should. Critically, Apocalypse is a train wreck. But you know what? It’s also awesome. And that awesomeness largely takes the form of the other movie, the one about the new generation of X-kids.

Seriously, these things are just ridiculously adorable.

Seriously, these things are just ridiculously adorable.

That movie is fun and compelling. It’s got a ton of heart, a terrific heist, and more moments that really feel like the X-Men than most of the previous films put together. And those things give it a solid enough foundation to make the flaws I noted above minor missteps rather than the deal-breakers they become against the comparatively weak backdrop of the Charles-and-Erik show.

The heart of that second story is the new kids: Cyclops, Jean Grey, Storm, and Nightcrawler. (Yes, Jubilee is in the movie; no, I’m not counting her in this group. No spoilers; she just doesn’t have enough screen time to be relevant.) Characters and actors are both walking an incredibly delicate line here: on one hand, they’re the new faces of the cinematic X-Men; but at the same time, they’re reprising the iconic roles with which the series launched sixteen years ago. They have to play close enough to model to stay recognizable; while bringing new blood–and change–to a foundering franchise.

And damn, do they nail it.

Stealing your hats... and your heart.

Stealing your hats… and your heart.

Sophie Turner plays Jean Grey with a prickly, walled-off eeriness that makes a lot of sense for someone who’s grown up bombarded by everyone else’s thoughts and feelings (and which has historically tended to get sacrificed to writers’ need to make Jean As Likable As Possible). Kodi Smit McPhee’s Nightcrawler is open, charismatic, and a really lovely bridge between his cinematic predecessor and the best antecedents from other media (and, I suspect, will be particularly appealing to fans of X-Men: Evolution). Alexandra Shipp is the Storm I’ve been waiting sixteen years to see–albeit somewhat undercut by the fact that Apocalypse, after finding its pitch-perfect Ororo, gives her far too little to do on-screen.

As for Cyclops–

It’s no secret that, even adjusting for the extent to which I’m overinvested in the X-Men in general, I am really overinvested in Scott Summers. As a critic, I can step back; as a fan, every piece of X-media lives and dies by the quality of its Cyclops. And everything I’d seen by way of promotional material and interviews had me really braced for the possibility that I was going to hate this kid.

Mea culpa.

They all look so happy!

They all look so happy!

Yes, the Cyclops of Apocalypse represents a fairly significant departure from previous versions of the character; and his backstory strays very far from the original comics version. (That’s technically true of the original cinematic Cyclops as well, but hasn’t factored into any of the preceding movies.) But that’s just fine, because playing Cyclops as an angry, cocksure, and weirdly normal teenager who’s devastated by and terrified of his powers turns out to be a really compelling spin on the character. Tye Sheridan provides one of the strongest performances of the film; and the result is a Cyclops who’s both recognizable and consistent with previous versions and genuinely new.

Movie #2 isn’t perfect. Storm is underused; Jean is underdeveloped (although Turner’s performance goes a long way to compensate). When the two stories converge, the adults inevitably take the fore, and the movie is the worse for that. Nor, I suspect, will the new characters provide enough of a toehold for newcomers likely to be bogged down by the convolution of what’s come before.

But even if they can’t quite save Apocalypse from itself, the kids at least leave me pretty hopeful about the future of the cinematic X-Men. Assuming the franchise continues in the direction it seems to be headed now that it’s survived that slow and tricky turn, it seems open to a wider range of possibilities than we could get from anything short of a reboot.

D'awwwwww

D’awwwwww

Is Apocalypse a good movie? No. Even at its best, it’s an impressive collection of shiningly splendid moments framed by an uneven, continuity-heavy clusterfuck and a shoehorned-in Wolverine appearance. (You can criticize a lot about the X-Men movies, but, hey, at least they’re pretty true to the comics!)

Do I think a straight reboot would be better? Absolutely. While Bryan Singer’s approach was absolutely groundbreaking in 2000 and 2002, now it feels hopelessly dated: in 2016, he’s still making the best superhero movies of 2002. And while I enjoy the messy continuity, and I’m in for the long game regardless, I also recognize that the same stuff I like to sink my teeth into is incredibly offputting to newcomers and often even long-term fans. Fox’s X-Men represent sixteen years of continuity, spanning six movies–not counting the Wolverine solo flicks, which take place in the same universe–and two near-total retcons. It’s time to start fresh.

Am I looking forward to the next one anyway? You bet. It’s taken sixteen years and six movies, but if the end of Apocalypse is actually where the franchise is headed? It’s finally going to be the series I have been waiting for from the start.

And do I think X-Men: Apocalypse is worth watching while you wait? Fuck, yeah. The whole may fall short, but it’s more than worth it for the quality of the parts.


X-Men: Apocalypse opens in theaters everywhere on May 27.

You can find animated versions of the Apocalypse emoji over here.

 

46 comments

  1. kingofdoma says:

    Quick question, Jay… you never mentioned Mystique in the review. How’s she in the film?

    • Jay says:

      Mystique is fine, but I still get the impression that Singer has no idea what to do with her: she’s got a more prominent role in this movie, but it’s still very adjunct and reactive to the Charles and Eric Have So Many Feelings storyline. (At this point, her frustration with that mess and attempt to break off from it leaves her feeling a bit like an audience stand-in.)

    • Person of Con says:

      I appreciate the idea of Mystique’s role in the film, but it almost makes the execution even more disappointing.

  2. Eugene Gray says:

    I knew this movie was going to be disappointing. Storm makes no sense as a horseman. Mystique makes no sense on the X-Men.

    It looks all action-y and no substance, basically the opposite of a good X-Men story.

    Bring on New Mutants and then reboot the whole series with more direct adaptations from the comics!!!!

    • DevilMayhem666 says:

      Storm was a horseman in X-men: Evolution, which Singer is a fan of.

    • Ben Karls says:

      I agree that Mystique makes no sense as an X-Men member even if she was, briefly, on X-Factor. It negates all her dramatic build up in the previous two prequels.

  3. B says:

    I would hereby request more x-men reviews done in Emoji. These are the most adorable things I’ve seen. I literally am trying to work them into conversations now.

  4. Adam says:

    I haven’t seen the movie yet obviously, but everything I’ve heard tells me I’m probably going to feel the same about this one as I have every other good X-Men movie: on the whole I’ll feel like the movie is just ok, but I’ll love the hell out of certain parts of it.

    The one thing I really want out of this movie is a solid and engaging start to the young X-Men, Jean, Scott, Kurt, etc. that can carry the franchise forward, and most of the reviews say pretty much that so I’m happy. I see all over the place that my favorite character (Jean Grey) while may not yet be truly coming into her own as a character finally looks to be on her way there. Another review that gave me hope said that while Scott will probably be under-appreciated in this movie he definitely is a presence to take notice of (maybe the movies do follow the comics).

    I’m guessing a major problem with this movie is that people are just tired of Magneto and Xavier headbutting (with Mystique as a go-between) without any new ground being covered. I get Magneto is an iconic villain, but unless they’re going to take him a new direction (New Mutants headmaster *wink wink nudge nudge*) it’s really time for the spotlight to shift away from him. Same with Xavier. He’s a fascinating individual, but he’s never been the appeal of this franchise.

    I’m looking forward to the movie now. Just a few more weeks!

    • Jay says:

      ” but unless they’re going to take him a new direction (New Mutants headmaster *wink wink nudge nudge*)”

      I just realized that THIS IS FEASIBLY A DIRECTION THEY COULD GO.
      Trying not to build up hope.

  5. On a scale of one Jupiter Ascending to five Jupiter Ascendings, how many Jupiter Ascendings is it?

    • Jay says:

      I have no idea how Jupiter Ascending scales. There are certainly fewer gowns.

      • I think I just really want the Wachowskis to in charge of the movie franchise.

        • Jay says:

          I would like them in charge of specific aspects and installments of it.

          …Actually, that’s what I’d like in general, and a large part of why I love long-running superhero comics: I really dig getting to see a wide range of strong authorial voices run with the same set of characters and themes. (Which comes full-circle to one of my biggest problems with Apocalypse: I suspect we’ve gotten everything we’re going to get out of Bryan Singer’s specific vision.)

          • I think it’s been the Inferno arc on the podcast that’s gotten me on this Wachowskis kick. How great would their techno-organic Limbo look?

            And I could agree more with the bigger point. I think I had previously been on record as HATING the Simonson run on New Mutants, but this podcast has really brought me around on that issue. It’s also gotten me thinking about how I might view my beloved Claremont run if he had barreled straight through #100 and into X-Force. There’s a cynical part of me that wonders whether genius is knowing when to bail out.

          • AlecDumas says:

            The Wachowski’s recent output has been uneven but daring, and the X-men franchise(s) needs that. It should operate at the bleeding edge of the MCU essentially as a Marvel counterculture: sincere but irreverent and socially provocative. I believe Singer still thinks mutants should be loose metaphor for groups marginalized by race, gender, sexuality etc., when in fact it should embrace those diversities directly. X-men films should also plunder the quirkier aspects of the comics’ universe: like the Mojoverse, the Demon Bear, Excalibur, Proteus and Limbo.

  6. David says:

    This is the sort of thing that makes me wish comics adaptations didn’t have to be big-deal blockbusters. X-Men has had some great “event” stories, but so much of what makes it great doesn’t work in that context.

    • Esgaldil says:

      The good news: They don’t! I am big fan of many comics films, but I love with so much love the Daredevil and Jessica Jones Seasons, and not being blockbusters is a big part of that.

      • David says:

        Comics MOVIE adaptations, I should say. It doesn’t seem like there’s any interest in a TV show that would actually feature the X-Men, so movies are the only place we get to see them and all the movies have to be smash-ups.

    • Icon_UK says:

      Which I why a New Mutants, or even early X-Factor, TV series appeals to me more than another movie blockbuster. An opportunity for some soapy-elements and character interactions rather than mega events.

  7. Dan C says:

    I gotta know. Which mutant that appears heavily in the marketing gets to have no lines in the movie or appear for three seconds of screentime (Mystique in X1, Lady Deathstrike in X2, Multiple Man in 3, Riptide in First Class, Half the cast of DoFP)….is it Psylocke?

  8. Birdy says:

    Do you think Bryan Singer and this franchise as a whole has handled it’s female characters well enough? Do you feel there any improvements there in this installment?

    • Jay says:

      Respectively: No, and sort of. As I wrote above, I’m less excited about this movie for what it is than for the direction it (potentially) heralds for future films.

  9. Nigel says:

    Was there a post credits peak of any sort?

    • Miles says:

      There wasn’t at the press screening, but Simon Kinberg has said the movie has one, so I’m guessing they’re not adding it in until it actually releases in theaters. We’ll be finding out along with you!

  10. Eddie House says:

    Thanks for the review. How was Munn’s Psylocke? Besides the ridiculous costume design was The Betsy Braddock we grew to love even represented fairly in this movie?

  11. I think the XMen movies peaked with X2: Xmen United, which I think was the most satisfying and successful of all the films (besides Deadpool). I say this because it was a great continuation and improvement with the characters and storytelling from the first XMen films. Following that, every film has simply felt like a set piece of cameos and posing mugging for the cameras with characters I don’t care about. Sounds like X:A fairs no better.

    I wish they would just streamline the hell out of these films and go back to basics with a small team that really felt like outcasts/minority and tell a story with heart. Wish they would learn that bigger isn’t better, cuz it sounds like a fan favorite character like Storm ends up with the short end of the stick. But I guess as long as these movies keep making boat-loads of monies, they’ll keep on giving us more of the same….

  12. Xavier Golden says:

    Would it be enjoyable for people who aren’t X-Men fans? I’m pretty excited just to see the new costumes, but I’m wondering whether I should take any of my not-geeky friends.

  13. Shannon says:

    I’m in the UK so I saw it last night. I agree with the majority of this review. Will this make best of the year lists? No. Was it a lot of fun? Absolutely. I’ve been reading X-men since the 90’s and I just enjoy seeing the X-Men use their powers and have a little fun on screen (this universe is just another # in the multiverse – right? It doesn’t have to be 616 accurate.) I was thoroughly entertained by 90% of the movie. I agree that it is time to move on from the Magneto/Charles/Mystique of it all. We all know that if Jennifer Lawrence hadn’t become a mega star during and after First Class, Mystique would not be the center of 3 X-Men movies! She’s great, don’t get me wrong – but Mystique has never been the center of the X-Men!

    But yes, very excited to see what comes next. Still holding out hope that one day we’ll get a recast Rogue and Gambit and can see that epic pairing play out on screen (they are my faves). We are getting a Channing Tatum Gambit, can we forget about Anna Paquin’s Rogue, recast and reage her appropriately to be roughly the same as Gambit for that movie? Who wants a Gambit movie with No Rogue?

    ps – I did see a post credit sequence. It was very short and very vague. I won’t spoil it but I’m a huge X-men fan and it took me a minute to figure out what it meant – and there are a couple options to what it could mean. It’s not as clear as the Apocalypse tease in the last movie.

    • Esgaldil says:

      It doesn’t have to be (and can’t be and shouldn’t be) 616 accurate, but it’s also not quite right to give it a number (ignoring whether those numbers still have meaning post-Battleworld). This set of movies is its own multiverse, unable to intersect with any of the alternate realities of the comics by the power of Copyright, a force far beyond the Beyonder…

  14. Ax says:

    I actually really disagree with several points of the review. I think the film doesn’t hold together but a trainwreck is far too harsh. Dawn of Justice this was not.

    I won’t go into everything I disagree with, but of note is the idea that they should have rebooted. The earliest point in time they could have rebooted was 2011. After that First Class was both successful enough to reignite some interest in the franchise and also represented too fresh of a beginning to go for ANOTHER new beginning so soon.

    But in 2011, the franchise was merely 11 years old and most people still remembered it well enough. It would’ve hit the same perception problems as the Amazing Spider-Man films which were seen as cynical, repetitive and piggybacking of Hollywood’s recent obsession with rebooting anything and everything. ‘reboot’ in effect has become a very loaded term in movie loving circles.

    But even putting that aside, I see no reason why a reboot is necessary. Thanks to Days of Future Past the slate has been wiped clean and absolutely nothing beyond the ages of the characters has to line up with the original movies. Scott and Jean don’t even need to enter into a relationship anytime soon and Wolverine never needs to join the team on screen. We just know it ‘happens at some point’.

    Creatively the filmmakers have free reign to tell virtually any stories they desire and as for general audiences all they need to have seen is First Class, DoFP and Apocalypse and they are good to go. The retcon in DoFP isn’t even all that confusing it functions identically to the retcon in the 2009 Star Trek film audiences were able to get their heads around. There was an original timeline, stuff happened to erase it, now everything is the new timeline and it can be anything we want. So those 16 years of continuity baggage are now gone.

    But even if they weren’t I fail to see why it’s a big deal. From 2000-2016 there have been 9 just X-Men related movies.

    In comparison the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had 13 movies in just 8 years (not counting TV shows, one shots, etc) the latest of which has paid off those 8 years in a big way which audiences were able to handle and embrace.

    Basically, modern comic book film audiences (in no small part thanks to Google, Wikipedia, Youtube, etc) have been trained to retain broad details of these movies for prolonged periods of time. Even Avengers Assemble required you to recall stuff from at least 4 years beforehand. And they obviously can as Marvel Studios’ success is testament too.

    But even if 9 films across 16 years is too much to expect of them, as I said DoFP allowed audiences to shed the weight of everything preceding First Class and move forward with a clean slate. One could even argue DoFP reintroduced audiences to the original X-Men characters (Storm, Jean, Cyclops, etc) in such a way that new people unfamiliar with the older movies could walk into Apocalypse and understand these new kids are obviously the same people from DoFP.

    What I’m saying is a reboot was never really feasible nor was/is it necessary. Singer and co. Have reinvigorated the X-Men in a laudably clever way which honours what came before whilst still allowing things to be fresh again.

    On a final note, I’m not entirely sure what was dated about the film which harkened it back to 2000-2002.

  15. Michael Heide says:

    Seen it. Expected way worse. It has its problems. Singer can’t do subtle. Jean looks like she’s about to sing Karma Chameleon. The pacing is odd, and the ending somewhat disappointing in parts. Nina should have been called Lorna.
    But there were tons of cool moments. Comic book panels come to life. The Eurythmics sequence. Michael Fassbender’s best performance yet (even if he didn’t have all that much to do). Patron Saint of pansexuals everywhere Oscar Isaac.

    All in all, 6/10.

    X-2
    DOFP
    First Class
    Apocalypse
    The Wolverine
    X-Men
    The Last Stand
    X-Men Origins Wolverine

  16. Finally watched it last night and this review is pretty spot on. I don’t know whether I would say it’s two movies smashed into one (at least it’s still more cohesive than the Last Stand) but there were definitely a lot of baffling decisions storyline wise.

    That being said, this movie gave me so much life. I can’t even count the number of times in my head I was just like “yes, ughh yesss”. I’m so surprised by how much I love this terrible film. And not in a “so bad it’s good” way, in a “I genuinely love this film, flaws and all” way.

  17. David Schiffman says:

    Jay, since you saw the movie already can you confirm if Alex Summers is going for his dissertation in the 80’s?

  18. Mime Paradox says:

    Perhaps its because my expectations were lowered by reviews and such but I enjoyed it a lot–possibly more than “Civil War”. Granted, I slept through some of the first few scenes–going to a con before hand is not great for the ol’ energy levels–which meant I might have managed to skip some slow sections, but what I liked I enjoyed, at least this first time around.

  19. ray says:

    I’v just seen the movie and I don’t have anything to add over the things Jay already wrote.
    Negative things aside (and the’re plenty) Cyclops, Jean, Kurt and Jubilee in a small yellow car is my new happy place.

  20. […] storytelling, prompting Jay Edidin (of the Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men podcast) to observe in their review of the new movie, “in 2016, [Bryan Singer]’s still making the best superhero movies of […]

  21. Birdy says:

    Pitch perfect Storm indeed!! So ready for more Alexandra Shipp as Storm, Sophie as Jean, and the rest of the youngsters. Those two girls though, captured Young Jean and Storm so well. Famke is still amazing, but Sansa Grey is A Okay.

  22. Ax says:

    I also fail to see how Apocalypse was ‘contrived’ in the film.

    They established early on that he had existed and adopted new powers for millennia. If that’s the case then his existence and abilities are not by definition not contrived and in fact serve the point of his character. He’s supposed to be nigh all powerful. Of course he’s going to have a wide array of abilities he unleashes over the course of the movie. They are fighting a veritable God.

    As for focussing upon Xavier and Magneto again, is this not a trilogy and therefore does that not then mean the focus should be on the characters whom we have started this trilogy focussing on and continued to focus upon?

    Furthermore I see no issue in regards to supplanting Kitty Pryde with Xavier, Logan and Magneto in DoFP. When push comes to shove you have to go with what makes sense logically from a realistic POV (Kitty wasn’t born in 1973) in addition to what makes sense narratively. Kitty in the movies barely had any presence and wasn’t going to be featured in upcoming films. Indeed the last X-film she was in was almost 10 years before DoFP in 2014.

    It simply made no sense whatsoever to have her fill the role of protagonist, even alongside Xavier and Magneto. Wolverine like it or not has been our POV character for 5 films before this and was alive back then so it made all the sense in the world to close the curtain on the original timeline’s X-Men movies with him.

    I also am not seeing the idea that Apocalypse was too self-impressed by the Quicksilver scene to have it be emotionally devastating. How could it have been more emotionally devastating exactly?

  23. […] I agree with Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men called when they call X-Men: Apocalypse as a a “heartily enjoyable train wreck”. I liked Apocalypse and his horsemen, but I found the threat from Apocalypse depersonalized and […]

  24. the demon cat saga says:

    The idea of it being two movies mashed together makes a lot of sense and I would have loved to see the movie all about the kids. The one with the bromance and Isaacolypse coming between them? Not so much. I would have been more than happy for that story to have been cut shorter and murkier so they could have wedged the mall scene in there. That was a damn shame.

    You’re totally on the money tho, Jay, saying that Singer has used all his X-tricks he has. He proved this when he whipped out his favorite handy dandy plot device of ZOMG PHOENIX to stop Apocalypse because that was the only big enough to beat the overinflated stakes. (I hope spoilers are ok now since it’s been out for 8 months…) I’m glad he’s gone from the franchise (although he’s directing the pilot of the new show and that’s giving me a small case of hives…) and really hope that Fox decides to rerelaunch the movies with the same cast (mostly-Fassbender is ‘retiring’ for a bit and JLaw has been pretty uninterested in going back) and just retool the story and concepts. The 10 years apart conceit Singer was using was absurd (that Alex wasn’t 40!) and they need to at least stick to one time period. (80s is cool although period pieces are always harder to do than present day…) I would be very disappointed to see this new cast be dumped at the roadside (BABBY NIGHTCRAWLER EEEE!!! Also OMG JAY! I LIKED SCOTT FINALLY!!!!1111) because they really did reinvigorate the roles despite not getting enough screen time (oh, also Ororo being African and have you SEEN how nerdy Alexandra Shipp gets???) They we’re just that damn good.

    Overall I hated the hot mess and the dead horse bromance and the really terribad Apocalypse costume (I saw a clip with a different, more subdued headpiece in the background of some tour at a VFX house that looked infinitely better than what poor Isaac got glued into) and poor Olivia Munn passed on Deadpool to be the 1 minute of screentime girl and possibly the best part was my drunken roommate yelling ‘IM SO BORED’ part way through but I’m really hopeful about the future upcoming movie featuring the actual Xmen that will be created by fresh minds and will possibly even be better-planned a la the MCU because that movie will be SUPER FRESH.

    Ok I’ll stop yelling now. Maybe. Thanks for the emoji omg. 😻

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